Adam Smith’s ‘tolerable administration’ vs. America’s increasingly intolerable one

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2023 is the 300th anniversary of Adam Smith’s birth. This post is part of a series highlighting aspects of Smith’s thought that continue to influence liberal thought in general, and CEI’s work in particular. Part 1 looked at Smith’s empathetic economics.

In celebration of the 300th birthday of Adam Smith, it is interesting to note that one of the great man’s most thought-provoking sayings appeared not in either of his great works, the Theory of Moral Sentiments or the Wealth of Nations, but in notes from his 1755 lectures in the possession of his popularizer, Dugald Stewart. The saying went:

Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things. All governments which thwart this natural course, which force things into another channel, or which endeavour to arrest the progress of society at a particular point, are unnatural, and to support themselves are obliged to be oppressive and tyrannical. (Emphasis added.)

Most commenters regard the emphasized words as a simple comment on the legal system. I suspect that more weight should be given to the words “tolerable administration.”

It is incumbent upon any legal or regulatory system (if we take that as synonymous with “justice”) that it not be burdensome. This is, indeed, the very etymology of “tolerable” – from the Latin tolerare, “to bear, endure, or support.” This suggests that every law or regulation be understandable to anyone who comes across it, and that every form that has to be filled and every box that has to be checked can be done so with an appropriate level of ease.

Now think about how long it takes to do your taxes. They are unlikely to be “easy,” especially if you are a small business person who has suddenly been saddled with issuing Form 1099s to every vendor or sub-contractor you have paid over $600 to, with a penalty of over $50 for each late form.

Then think about the 212,000 rules issued by the federal government since 1976, and the literally countless pages of guidance documents issued to support them. At some point the line separating tolerable form intolerable will have been crossed, and if it hasn’t been already, it surely will be soon. There are, however, ways in which we could measure these burdens, if Congress would make this a priority.

Then there is the administration aspect of justice. Recent Supreme Court decisions have cast doubt on whether the way we administer regulation is compatible with the requirements of the Constitution, including its insistence on due process. Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission has announced that it will do away with some of the pesky due process aspects of its administrative proceedings – indeed a commissioner resigned over the Chair’s “disregard” for the rule of law.

The administration of justice requires procedural fairness – one might even say procedural justice. Yet for too many people caught up in the web of bureaucracy, the result is either costly (and therefore intolerable) or life-destroying (and therefore unjust.)

There is a human cost to intolerable administration. Indeed, if we wish for reform and a more humane government, perhaps “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice” would make for a good manifesto.